The Holy Grail

Partner Clare Hughes explores the significance of 'place' in museum architecture as part of her Winston Churchill

Fellowship to 'reimagine museums'.

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Although some "experts" argue the future of museums lies in pure knowledge connectivity, housed in Amazon-style warehouses, my belief is that the physical experience of being in a particular building is something that digitised knowledge and virtual reality cannot offer.

It comes down to Alexander Pope's idea of "genius loci" or "spirit of place". For Pope that spirit of place derives from the latent intelligence within natural landscapes and the idea that designers should work with rather than against that intelligence. When applied to architectural space, a spirit or sense of place comes from a whole range of gestures and interventions: context and orientation; lighting; internal and external views; use of materials; patterns of use; iconography... I could go on. 

To create a strong sense of place within a contemporary museum is a big challenge and, from my recent visits to museums in Europe, I have observed it sometimes comes at the expense of other important elements such as spatial flexibility and dynamic storytelling.

The Neues Museum in Berlin is an excellent example of this. Designed by Friedrich August Stüler and built from 1843 to 1855, the building suffered severe damage during World War II. Its reconstruction from 1998-2009 by David Chipperfield Architects was much lauded for retaining the scars of war and for making a virtue of the many layers of uncomfortable history to which the building stands testament. It is a breath-taking piece of work where walls, ceilings, materials, light, volume all come together in various different ways throughout the museum to create a very powerful sense of place and time. [1, 2, 3, 4]

Having worked for a long time with historic buildings I was particularly gripped by the seemingly effortless junctions between new and old. Indeed, that distinction seemed to dissolve, not because it was disguised but because each element stands beautifully in its own right and in its own time, cheerfully conversing with each other. Although some in Germany would have preferred a more straightforward reconstruction, I found the scheme to be a wonderful and discursive work of art in its own right - richly complex, thought-provoking and difficult. And yet, in other ways, beautifully simple. The museum’s website quite rightly describes the renovations as “…a sensitive discourse on beauty, time, impermanence, and change.” [5]

This rich, subtle, yet palpable, discourse creates a physical experience that visitors immerse themselves in and are beguiled by. So, ten out of ten for sense of place Mr. Chipperfield. But, having spoken at length with the museum’s current director, Professor Friederike Seyfried, it seems much lower marks to be awarded for spatial flexibility and storytelling through the collections.

Professor Seyfried, an esteemed Egyptologist, inherited the scheme from the former director, an art historian by training, who worked with Chipperfield to deliver the renovation project.

Although, like us, she admires the quality of bronze plinths and weighty vitrines she also finds them frustrating as their heavy permanence limits options for changing displays or reconfiguring the galleries. Although, like us, she is enchanted by the charred pillars, bullet-scarred plasterwork and the faded 19th century paintwork, she also finds the archaeology of the building can overwhelm the archaeology of the collections. [6] 

Seyfried was candid about the challenges she now faces. As an archaeologist she believes the objects in her collection were not created as works of art but rather as expressions of different practical and social aspects of an ancient civilisation. She wants to use these objects to share the culture of ancient Egypt with visitors but has very little space or means to do so. There is an audio-guide but few people were using them. Digital tools would provide the obvious solution here but the director asserts that works to install wifi would be very costly and potentially damaging to the building. She also enjoys the idea that visitors have an unmediated experience with the objects that tablets and mobile phones might spoil.

The biggest frustration is a lack of flexibility. Seyfried asserts, " This latest scheme was built for eternity. We are not here for eternity, I am not here for eternity and we need a much more flexible approach to share our knowledge and the collections."

In (tentative) conclusion, it seems the perfect alignment of space and content is something of a Holy Grail for now and my visit to the glorious Neues Museum has left me with some very challenging questions to explore:

* Does flexibility in museum space necessarily come at the expense of a palpable "spirit of place"?

* Is explicit storytelling at odds with the expression of a strong architectural identity?

* What are the elements necessary for space and content to work together to create satisfying narrative spaces? 

This piece is likely to be the first of many on the subject so I leave you with some words of wisdom from Nick Serota's book on Experience and Interpretation:

Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery in looking at particular paintings, sculptures or installations in a particular room at a particular moment, rather than find themselves on the conveyor belt of history.”

To be continued....

Clare Hughes

Image Captions:

**1. Vestige of the 19th century wayfinding scheme in the Neues Museum, Berlin. ©Clare Hughes

2. The Greek Court at the Neues Museum. The story of the building is quite literally told through its fabric. ©Jean-Pierre Dalbera

3. Bullet holes and bomb scars are part of the architectural storytelling at Berlin's Neues Museum. ©John Dawson

4. View through to the contemporary staircase in the Grand Hall. ©John Dawson

5. Didactic Eygptian iconography formed part of the museum's original painted schemes which are beautifully conserved as a framework for vitrines displaying gorgeous artefacts. ©Clare Hughes

6. The tiny label on the plinth announces only the name of the object and an approximate date. There is no space for multiple layers of interpretation or story-telling. This is where digital tools come into their own but is that the only way? ©Clare Hughes

7. ©John Dawson